In 1990, Chip Dunham's badly drawn, deliberately anachronistic Overboard began appearing in papers. I have to admit that I was mildly fond of Overboard in these early days. It was about pirates (and who doesn't love pirates?) who appeared to be living simultaneously in modern times and an unspecified period of the past. There were numerous characters, including the strip's cartoonist, who appeared to live on the ship. In a sea of office comedies and two-point-four-children-and-a-dog Hi and Lois rip-offs, Overboard stood out.
A friend of mine tried to convince me that it was dreck. I stubbornly refused to believe her. I continued to refuse to believe her long after it had become apparent that the mere presence of the pirates was not, in fact, saving this strip at all. It may not have started as dreck, but it swiftly became so and, in recent years, has graduated to the state of lazy, infuriating garbage.
The large and varied cast of pirates has almost vanished, leaving three: dreary, stupid Captain Henry Crow (less stupid than he used to be, and currently romantically involved with a mermaid); Charley, the little guy (Charley used to be a scheming layabout with the morals of a crocodile, but he has reformed and grown even drearier than Crow); and Nate, the gentle giant (he eats too much and plays the accordion!* I shall laugh myself to death!). The other pirates, as well as the enemy pirates from the Green Ship, have by and large been replaced by vermin: Louie the Labrador (I would rather bite off my tongue than read another Louie joke); Raymond the anthropomorphic dog (don't ask); an entire civilisation of mice, one of whom has a crush on the Captain; and huge upright rabbits intent on stealing Charley's vegetables.
Clearly, this is Hell, nor are we out of it. The pirates shuffle around their ship, dead-eyed and lethargic, going through the motions as the pest problem surges out of control. The cartoonist who controls their destinies rarely shows himself any more. Either he is an absent God or an ever-present Satan, invisible and malevolent. The characters may look bored, but inside, their souls are screaming in anguish as they (and we) are punished for the sins of humankind. Dante would have had a hard time figuring out where to place these guys in his Hell. They are obviously suffering extreme torment, but the inner circle is already taken by Satan and the traitors, and the outer circles are too mild for the kind of brutally punishing ennui we are witnessing here.
In the comic below, Captain Crow, unsmiling, praises Charley's topiary. Charley, unsmiling, accepts the praise. The Captain, unsmiling, asks Charley to destroy the very aspect of the topiary he has been praising. Charley, unsmiling, agrees. The Captain, unsmiling, thanks him as Louie barks and/or salivates at a branch so small that even if some genius had managed to trim it into the shape of a tiny squirrel, no one would have been able to tell that it was anything but a lump of tree (topiary, of course, works best when seen from a distance). The zombie-like behaviour of the pirates may at first seem utterly nonsensical, but think of this as a scene played out over and over and over again in a place of punishment. It doesn't have to make sense. The Captain and Charley are being forced to undergo an extreme version of the nonsense of human existence. They are tormented by the demonic Louie, whose reaction to the "squirrel" is only logical** if it is seen as an instrument of diabolical retribution.
Actually, the whole comic may be an instrument of diabolical retribution. I'm pretty sure the Prince of Darkness gets a kick out of reading it as he munches on his morning bowl of condemned souls.
*I play the accordion. Enough with the accordion jokes, people. The poor accordion is an easy target, and you destroyed it utterly about fifty years ago. Why not give it a rest and have a go at the viola or the zither for a change?
**Yes, I know that Labs often aren't logical. Oh, God, I'm starting to sound like the pirates.